Oceana Magazine Spring 2013: A Sea of Noise
By Emily Fisher
The sound of ocean waves ebbing and flowing is one of the most soothing on Earth, with a rhythm akin to a human’s breathing at rest. But beneath the waves, a dangerous din is growing.
Sonar blasts from military exercises and ever-present noise from commercial shipping engines are creating a cacophony in our seas – and if proposed seismic airgun testing moves forward in the Atlantic, the noise will soon become unbearable for some of the most beloved and charismatic creatures in the ocean.
During seismic airgun testing, deafening blasts of compressed air are shot from the surface of the sea miles under the seafloor to detect oil and gas deposits. The Department of the Interior is considering airgun testing from Delaware to Florida, which could have devastating impacts on marine mammals, sea turtles and fisheries.
If approved, the airgun blasts, which are 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine, would occur every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for days to weeks on end. The government’s own scientists have estimated that seismic airguns would harm 138,500 dolphins and whales, injure critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and disrupt sea turtle nesting for threatened loggerheads.
The ear-splitting blasts are especially damaging to marine mammals, for which deafness means almost certain death. Whales, dolphins and other marine mammals use high-pitched sound waves to find food and communicate with members of their pods. The blasts mask the communication of whales and dolphins and can make them abandon their habitat. The consistency of the noise disrupts vital behaviors such as mating and feeding, and at closer ranges airgun blasts can cause temporary and permanent hearing loss, which leads to beach strandings and death.
“A deaf whale is a dead whale. They need their hearing to survive,” said Matthew Huelsenbeck, a marine scientist at Oceana. “The amount of marine life harmed by airguns is simply unacceptable.”
So why are sound waves in the ocean so damaging to marine life? Because of the way sound waves move through sea water. Unlike sunlight, which can’t go farther than a few hundred feet in the ocean, sound waves can travel for hundreds of miles.
In addition to damaging whales and dolphins, the government predicts that the blasts would drive fish away from important feeding or fishing grounds, putting commercial and recreational fishing industries, which support more than 200,000 jobs and generate $11.8 billion in revenue, at risk. According to a study conducted in the Arctic Ocean, fisheries for cod and haddock showed decreased catch rates of 40 to 80 percent surrounding the use of a single airgun array. Around the world fishermen have received compensation after seismic companies have scared away their fish and decreased their catches.
What makes proposed seismic airgun testing even more absurd is that oil drilling on the Atlantic coast is banned until at least 2017, so the use of seismic airguns is not only damaging in the short-term, it’s premature at best and catastrophic at worst, in the case of an oil spill in the long run. “We should be focusing instead on offshore wind development, which would provide more jobs and energy than offshore drilling without the risks to the environment from seismic airguns, oil spills and carbon emissions,” said Huelsenbeck.
Oceana’s campaign to stop seismic airgun testing has included “noisemaking” protests in cities on the East Coast, including one across from the Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C. Oceana also submitted 30,000 petitions and lobbied House and Senate members to send a letter to the President opposing seismic testing in the Atlantic.
After nine months of campaigning by Oceana, the Department of the Interior decided to delay their final decision on whether Atlantic seismic testing will be allowed. This final decision was originally scheduled for December 2012, but due to strong opposition it has been pushed back to late 2013 at the earliest.
The Atlantic isn’t the only ocean in the crosshairs. Conservationists scored a victory in November when the California Coastal Commission rejected a proposal by Pacific Gas and Electric to conduct seismic airgun testing in the ocean surrounding the Diablo Canyon Power Plant near Morro Bay, CA, citing the unacceptable harm to marine life. The proposal faced massive opposition from a wide coalition, including Oceana and commercial and recreational fishermen.
Oceana will continue to push back against seismic testing in the Atlantic in order to keep whales and dolphins safe, and to steer clear of offshore drilling.